On the Design of Buttons in Healthcare

Doctor as Designer
4 min readFeb 14, 2021

We recently bought a product that came with this remote control.

Design Quiz #1:

Which button would you choose to turn on the device for this remote?


Would you have picked the green button?

It turns out that the red button turns the object on, and the green button that turns the object off, which is totally counterintuitive! We are used to the mental model of a stoplight, in which red means stop and green means go. Why would anyone design buttons in such a confusing way? Examples of this are widespread in healthcare.

Design Quiz #2:

You are about to join a telemedicine visit with your medical provider using your mobile phone. Which button would you press to start the visit?

Would you press the E-visit button?

That is what the majority of other patients have done! But when they touch the button they find that they cannot connect to the telemedicine visit with their provider, so they are forced to revert to a telephone call for the visit because of the technical failure. When a ticket is put into the information technology help desk, this is the feedback:

“By looking at the audit trail, it appears that mom must have gotten confused by the E-Visit link in the patient portal menu rather than finding the scheduled video visit appointment under the “Appointments” menu.

So, the root cause here is patient error.”

Is it really patient error?

The official definition of an e-visit is a “billable electronic interaction in which patients get medical advice from providers exclusively through asynchronous communication through the portal”. It’s emailing your provider through the EHR patient portal! It’s not a telemedicine visit!

Even as a healthcare provider, I find this totally confusing as a consumer and as a human.

I would have done exactly what that mother did, hitting the e-visit button to jump into the telemedicine visit! As I have said before, let’s not blame patients!

It turns out that this was confusing enough to enough patients that the a “sign” had to be added to the patient instructions stating: “Please note, you should press the Appointments button in the Patient Portal app, NOT the E-Visit button.”

As Don Norman says, “If it needs a sign, it’s bad design!”

Design Quiz #3:

You need to print out a paper prescription for your patient because they need to be able to bring the physical prescription to a pharmacy. Which button do you press to print?

Would you click the “Print” button?

That’s not what the physician had to do. To print a paper order she first had to press “no print” on the first screen. Then she had to go to a separate screen in the discharge orders section, and then hit a hyperlink under a different section to print the actual paper copy!

Design Quiz #4:

To get to the next part of the hospital, which button do you press, push to open or push to exit?

Maybe you should hit both?

In healthcare, there are so many buttons that confuse us, mislead us, and make our lives more rather than less complicated.

Where are the buttons in healthcare that will do “A BIT MORE” for us?

Yes there is a button called “A BIT MORE” on the Breville toaster oven. Read this article by Ian Bogost. It’s a fascinating article about the opportunity for empathic design, encapsulated in the design of a button! What an opportunity for healthcare design!

I tweet and blog about design, healthcare, and innovation as “Doctor as Designer”. Follow me on Twitter and sign up for my newsletter.

Click here for information about creative commons licensing. Disclosures: Medical Advisory Board of GoodRx. Special thanks to Jake Dwyer and Sthemaker for illustrations.

P.S. Confused about how to get clearance for entering a building during a pandemic? You are not alone…




Doctor as Designer

Joyce Lee, MD, MPH, Physician, Designer, ACMIO, #EHR, #learninghealthsystems, #design, #makehealth http://www.doctorasdesigner.com/